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During our MS thesis studies, I remember that some of my friends were using LaTeX to write their theses. All I can remember is that it was like an old MS-DOS screen, and the program was linked to some files to arrange page margins, paper size, headers, footers, etc. Friends were saying it is hard to learn LaTeX but once you learn, it is easier than MS Word to finish writing your thesis.

Now, I just don't know where to start. I am willing to learn LaTeX but I really don't know much about it. Is it a programming language or a software? Where should I start with? What software do I need? When I type LaTeX in Google, it fetches too many pages which is confusing for me. Any recommendations for online documents, and good web sites covering everything about it? TIA.

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

LaTeX is a markup language, meaning that everything in a document is about what it is rather than how it looks like. The final formatting is done by a program (e.g. pdflatex) that translates your input source files to an output file (e.g. a PDF file).

This relieves you from having to worry about the looks of your document before you even have the content done. A similar workflow is possible in programs like Microsoft Word, when you define a style sheet and e.g. format headings as h1 rather as "bold, 15pt, sans-serif", but to me this happens much more natural in markup languages like LaTeX.

When I started to learn LaTeX I learned pretty much everything to get me started from this guide.

One can do actual programming in the TeX (the underlying language in LaTeX) and there are other possibilities like Lua, but you do not need this to write documents.

LaTeX can be written in any text editor (probably what you saw before), but there are also specialized editors (environments) available that make this very easy for new users:

  • Lyx, TeXnicCenter: show you immediately how your document will look
  • AUCTeX: extremely productive (La)TeX plugin for emacs (in fact the only reason for me to use emacs these days), with preview you even get a look at how your figures and equations will look like inside emacs
  • VIM-LaTeX: LaTeX-plugin for vim, good for quick stuff

The plus points of LaTeX in comparison to using e.g. Microsoft Word for me are:

  • you stay focused on your content
  • making professional looking documents extremely easy, e.g. numbering of figures, references, extremely good support for math markup
  • your university might already provide a LaTeX class/style that makes everything look like required
  • LaTeX has very loose limits on how big your document can be, and it doesn't crash like Word seems to when your document gets very big
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Thanks for the "very" useful info. – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Mar 10 '10 at 15:22
Note though, that in practially every at least medium-sized real-world document there are those weird corner cases where LaTeX's automagic handling doesn't quite do what you want and you have to jump through a few hoops to achieve the desired result. This has happened to me nearly every time I used LaTeX to write a document longer than 5 pages. The built-in algorithms perform quite well but still often require some manual intervention to get a good result (yes, figures may also disappear from the document entirely, just like in Word). – Joey Mar 10 '10 at 21:45
Also don't believe the myth that you don't have to know anything about typesetting and LaTeX will magically create beautiful documents for you. When used without knowledge the results are equally awful as Word's, just maybe with a silk robe draped over them—which doesn't change that much, it makes the result just look better in its ugliness. For example: While you won't get unusually long spaces you'll get lines that overflow the right border. Figures or tables might go beyond page boundaries when layout fails. You can easily get ”right quotation marks” on both sides if not paying attention. – Joey Mar 10 '10 at 21:49
@Johannes Rössel: Thanks for sharing the dark corners of LaTeX. – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Mar 10 '10 at 22:05
Chiming in with a TeXworks[1] mention. I use vim with latex-suite for myself, but I have friends doing large projects in TeXworks, and they say it does the job well. [1]: – fjut Mar 12 '10 at 22:50

I found this to be a good point to start with LaTeX

LaTeX is not a programming language it's a "Document Markup Language" and does not refer to a specific software.

Written LaTeX looks like:

  \LaTeX example...

A LaTeX compiler (if you use windows you could use will make sense of this and write a proper document (PDF usually)

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The other answers cover the basics of LaTeX quite well. To get you started, here are some SW recommendations:

  • If you're on Linux, almost all distributions include TeX and LaTeX. Just install the relevant packages, usually they are named something like "tex" or "texlive".
  • For Windows, get TeXLive from their site:
  • On MacOS X, get MacTeX

After installing it, you can use one of the tutorials above to get started.

The files that you write LaTeX in are just text files, so you could use Notepad to write LaTeX. However, it's helpful to have an editor that helps you a bit.

For starters, you could use something like Notepad++ or vim . You can also use a more full-featured environment like TeXnic Center, that's a matter of personal preference. The result will always be the same, as they all just invoke LaTeX in the end.

Additional info:

Also see here:

You might also want to try LyX. It is not LaTeX (but based on LaTeX), but a bit more userfriendly. If you later want to use LaTeX directly, it's not difficult to migrate.

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